Parenting in Fathers Who Have Exposed Their Children to Domestic Violence: Identifying Targets for Change

  • Katreena L. ScottEmail author
  • Catherine Thompson-Walsh
  • Asma Nsiri
Interdisciplinary review


In the aftermath of children’s exposure to domestic violence, professionals are often rightly concerned about the extent and nature of fathers’ ongoing relationships with their children. In addition to considering the extent and impact of fathers’ past abuse, child welfare workers need to make judgments about whether he has become safer and more able to parent his children. We reviewed a range of literatures to identify changes in DV fathers that are predictive of father-child relationships that are free from abuse and predictive of healthy child outcomes. Hostile/over-reactive parenting and difficulties with co-parenting emerged as the most promising targets for change. Fathers’ gender role stress, depression, and substance abuse were also identified as potentially important predictors of better child outcomes. Level of father involvement and father-child emotional closeness showed more complex relations to child safety and well-being and, as such, were not considered promising as general targets for parenting interventions with fathers who have exposed their children to domestic violence.


Domestic violence Child maltreatment Father Co-parenting Father involvement Hostility Over-reactive parenting Paternal depression Masculinity Comprehensive review 

Results from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV) find that 5.8% of American children have witnessed one of their parents assault the other in the past year, and 15.8% of children have witnessed domestic violence (DV) over their lifetime (Finkelhor et al. 2015). Lifetime rates of child exposure to DV are lower than those for physical assault by peers and for exposure to community violence but higher than those for other forms of child maltreatment, including physical abuse (lifetime exposure, 9.8%), emotional abuse (14.5%), neglect (11.8%), and sexual abuse (less than 1%).

Over the past 20 years, our understanding of the impact of domestic violence exposure on children has grown considerably. DV exposure is predictive of internalizing (e.g., depression; anxiety; eating disorders) and externalizing (e.g., conduct disorders; delinquency; substance abuse) disorders in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, as well as deficits in peer relationships, delays in cognitive development, and poor academic achievement (Carpenter and Stacks 2009; Holt et al. 2008; Kitzmann et al. 2003; Wolfe et al. 2003).

Consistent with the broader literature on complex developmental trauma and poly-victimization, DV-exposed children who also experience other forms of childhood adversity show even higher rates of problems (Finkelhor et al. 2015; Ford et al. 2013; Van der Kolk and d’Andrea 2010). Child maltreatment (usually physical abuse) by fathers is the most frequently studied co-occurring adversity with child exposure to DV (Edleson 1999; Hamby et al. 2010). Often referred to as a double whammy effect, studies have been fairly consistent in documenting cumulative effects of victimization, such that children who experience both direct child maltreatment and exposure to domestic violence show higher rates of problems than children experiencing either of these adversities alone (Cyr et al. 2006; Malik 2008; Moylan et al. 2010; Murrell et al. 2007; Sousa et al. 2011).

Efforts to understand vulnerability and resilience of children in the context of domestic violence have concentrated mostly on characteristics of mothers and the mother-child relationship. Studies have consistently shown that mothers with good mental health, strong engagement and attunement with their children, less extensive histories of violence, and good parenting skills tend to have children who are less negatively impacted by exposure to DV. Children whose mothers are not able to access these resources, in particular mothers who are depressed and whose relationships with their children are disengaged and/or hostile, are likely to be most severely affected by DV exposure (Graham-Bermann et al. 2009; Kimball 2016; Martinez-Torteya et al. 2009).

Much less attention has been paid to the impact of the fathers in the context of DV. On the basis of a recent systematic review of the literature on childhood exposure to DV, Kimball (2016) reported there remains “a dearth of information that examines the father-child dyad” (p. 629). Kimball was able to identify only two studies that specifically examined the father-child relationship in the context of DV, only one of which used father informants (Dick 2005; Stover et al. 2006). This bias is problematic because the extent and quality of fathers’ involvement with children does matter. In response to a challenge from her colleagues that they justify the time and expense of collecting data from fathers, Sarkadi et al. (2008) conducted a rigorous review of studies on the impact of (non-violent) fathers’ involvement. The authors concluded that non-violent father engagement has positive impacts on children’s social, behavioral, and psychological outcomes over and above the effect of other potentially confounding demographic and family (e.g., mother-child relationship) variables. Research on families involved with child welfare services provides additional evidence for the importance of considering fathers, though from the perspective of risk and potential harm. In this context, there is converging evidence that the presence of co-occurring father-perpetrated DV along with other forms of child maltreatment predicts more severe and repeated child victimization as well as poorer child outcomes (Casanueva et al. 2009; Chan 2011; Coohey 2006; Jobe-Shields et al. 2015; Taylor et al. 2009).

At the launch of this journal, we wanted to draw attention to research on the father-child relationship in the context of DV, and in particular, on potential change targets for intervention with these men. In the first part of this article, we set the context for this review and outline the criteria we used to identify candidate mechanisms of change in fathers who have perpetrated DV. In the second part, we review research on six candidate change mechanisms: hostile/over-reactive parenting; co-parenting; father involvement; emotional closeness; paternal mental health (depression and substance abuse); and sexism/masculinity. We conclude with a discussion of other potential mechanisms as well as moderators of change that should be considered in future work. It is our hope that this review will help to motivate and guide future research on parenting in fathers who have perpetrated domestic violence.

Context of Intervention with Fathers Who Have Perpetrated Domestic Violence

Before considering what might need to change in intervention, we need to consider the broader issues of whether to offer services in support of fathers, when such intervention should be eschewed in favor of setting greater limits on father-child contact because of ongoing concerns about the safety and well-being of children and their mothers, and how programs for fathers are integrated with, and accountable to, broader efforts to end intimate partner violence and child maltreatment. These considerations set the context for the current article.

As we have previously argued, to protect women and children more effectively, it is essential that we pay attention to fathers’ risks and potential as parents and as co-parenting partners (Scott and Crooks 2004, 2007). We have pointed out that fathers often maintain contact with their children post-DV and post-separation, and that even when they do not, their children frequently seek contact and resolution at some point. In addition, men themselves often move onto other families and other children who, by virtue of being step-children, are at greater risk of victimization. Even more importantly, failure to involve, assess, and when appropriate, attempt to intervene with fathers means that the ongoing and dynamic risk that they pose to their families is not seen or addressed by systems attempting to promote safety and well-being. Instead, mothers are all too often put in the impossible situation of monitoring and keeping their children safe from fathers’ direct and indirect (i.e., exposure to DV) abuse, often during a very high-risk time (i.e., separation), all while under the threat of being labelled “unprotective” by child protective services and “unfriendly” by family courts (Hester 2011; Humphreys and Absler 2011). Greater involvement of child protective services with fathers, along with other initiatives (e.g., better training of child welfare professionals in DV) has the potential to help reduce this unfair and unmanageable burden on mothers (Devaney 2008; Hester 2011; Humphreys and Absler 2011).

In our previous writing, we have also outlined underlying principles that we deem essential to directing intervention and suggested a set of accountability standards to help inform development of service at the intersection of domestic violence and fathering (Scott and Crooks 2004, 2007; Scott et al. 2007, 2014). Two of the most important principles that we outline are that interventions with fathers who have been violent in their families must have, as their central intervention target, the safety and well-being of children, and further, that programs must recognize that child safety is integrally connected to the safety of their mothers (or other primary caregivers). In other words, part of being a good father is having a non-abusive relationship with children’s mothers. Another principle we advance is the need for children to have their “voice” respected. Children have been impacted by their fathers’ abuse and they need to have a developmentally appropriate role in directing the possibility and pace of rebuilding relationships with their fathers.

These principles have wide-reaching implications for service. For example, to recognize and address potentially ongoing patterns of domestic violence adequately, it is necessary that intervention providers are alert to the potential for emotional abuse, control and subtle ongoing patterns of domestic violence and that men’s treatment of mothers be a major point of discussion throughout intervention. To do this, intervention providers need to have training and experience in domestic violence intervention, as well as in child trauma/protection and parenting work. We also hold that interventions with fathers should include contact with children’s mothers directly or through partner services to ensure mothers’ safety and freedom from coercion.

Maintaining a fundamental focus on child safety and well-being has other implications for collaboration between interventions for DV fathers and the broader system of social services, as well as for the specific goals that might be pursued in intervention. Fathers’ safety and ability to support healthy child development is (or should be) a central concern for child protection/child and family support services, domestic violence services, and family law/child contact services. These three spheres of practice have very different structures, orientations, and approaches, leading Hester (2011) to describe them as three different “planets.” These differences, along with historical conflicts and sometimes high levels of distrust, means that working collaboratively can be quite challenging. The presence of multiple, sometimes conflicting, and often unsynchronized legal proceedings and the frankly inadequate funding for child protection and domestic violence services can act as additional barriers to collaborative work. Such collaboration is necessary, however, if intervention is to remain focused on child safety and well-being. Information sharing across sectors is often necessary in order to recognize and adequately respond to the rapidly changing level of risk that fathers might pose to their children and families and to identify potential areas of change in men that might be most important for supporting healthy child development. For example, there may be times that the most appropriate focus of intervention for a father who has perpetrated DV is his compliance with limits to contact or is monitoring and managing his risk while collaborating services are taking protective action (e.g., moving mom and children into a shelter).

Even within well-functioning cross-agency collaboration, however, it is often challenging to identify agreed-upon intervention goals. Although there may be agreement that intervention should focus on preventing violence recurrence and supporting healthy child development, there are many conflicting ideas about what might be necessary for these outcomes to occur. Should priority be placed on reducing denial of past abuse and increasing men’s appreciation of the the impact of child exposure to domestic violence (both common reasons for referral)? Or on helping fathers to be more aware of and responsive to his children’s current needs? Or on being more respectful in his co-parenting relationship(s)? Or on supporting him in gaining employment and life skills so that he can contribute financially to his family? Or perhaps on addressing substance abuse and/or criminality? Consistent with a principle focus on child safety and well-being, it has been recommended that professionals (particularly court-based) making judgements about fathers’ ongoing contact with children consider the extent to which perpetrators of domestic violence are taking measures to correct their behavior. Jaffe et al. (2008) have identified this as a component of accountability, and recently tabled changes to Canada’s Divorce Act (Bill c-78) specify that one criterion to be used in determination of parenting decision-making and division of time be “any steps taken by the person engaging in the family violence to prevent further family violence from occurring and improve their ability to care for and meet the needs of the child.” But what exactly is the nature and extent of change needed in fathers to meet this criteria? It is obvious (if not always acted on in practice) that men’s ongoing perpetration of violence against children’s mothers precludes efforts to develop a safe, healthy father-child relationship. More difficult is specifying the criteria for adequate improvement in a father who has perpetrated domestic violence in the past. All too often, time without incident is used as a criteria for moving to less supervision and longer periods of contact between fathers and their children, rather than on any agreed-upon indicators of change in fathers’ level of safety and ability to better meet the needs of their children. To move beyond this situation, a better understanding is needed of aspects of fathers’ parenting and co-parenting that are most strongly related to safety and child well-being so that these can be assessed, and when appropriate, addressed through intervention.

Mechanisms of Therapeutic Change

What needs to change over treatment? and, Why does change come about? We are interested in exactly these types of questions as applied to understanding the father-child relationship in the context of DV. Specifically, we want to know: What are the paths from children’s exposure to their fathers’ DV (potentially along with other direct forms of father-to-child maltreatment) to a father-child relationship that is free from abuse and predictive of healthy child development? In asking this question, we are querying mechanisms of change, or treatment targets, leaving aside for the moment the broader context and principles that should guide this work. Change is a surprisingly often neglected area of study, with far more studies devoted to delineating developmental risks associated with victimization or to asking the question of whether or not treatment works, without corresponding attention to why or how such effects might occur.

In a seminal article in this area, Kazdin (2007) argued for the value of research on mechanisms of change. He pointed out that better understanding why and how change occurs may help bring order and parsimony to seemingly divergent treatment options. Change research can also help clarify why some individuals accessing treatment progress while others do not. Furthermore, an understanding of the mechanisms of change should facilitate efforts to optimize treatments and translate them across contexts.

Kazdin (2007) delineated a number of criteria to help identify mechanisms of change. We have used these criteria to guide our review of literature. First, Kazdin suggested there should be a strong association between the proposed mechanism and the outcome in question, and that such an association be consistent across studies. Thus, in our review, we were concerned with identifying variables relevant to fathers’ parenting and the father-child relationship that were repeatedly associated with DV and/or child maltreatment and also predictive of healthy child development. Cognizant of the value of combining knowledge from across areas of study, we considered literature from the study of parenting (including mothering), fatherhood, domestic violence, and child maltreatment. Second, Kazdin specified that relationships should be specific and not general to a wide range of seemingly unrelated outcomes. We were thus attentive to whether identified variables were known to differentiate fathers with and without a history of perpetrating DV and to any evidence that candidate mechanisms might be specific to DV or general to all father-child relationships. Finally, we were particularly interested in any evidence from studies that experimentally manipulated interventions or which examined mediators of change within randomized control trials of intervention to improve parenting or reduce violence.

Candidate Mechanisms of Change for Fathering in the Context of Domestic Violence

Hostility and over-Reactivity in Parenting

A first candidate mechanism of change to be considered for fathering in the context of DV is men’s level of hostility and over-reactivity to their child(ren). In mothers, negative reactivity towards their children is one of the most well-established risk factors for child externalizing problems and is amongst the strongest predictors of child physical abuse and neglect (Stith et al. 2009). Theoretically grounded in Patterson’s coercion model (Patterson 1982; Reid et al. 2002), multiple studies have demonstrated the existence of a cascading sequence of inept, unsuccessful, and increasingly over-reactive, harsh, and coercive parent-child interactions that is highly predictive of escalation in child externalizing problems over time. The extent to which parents are engaged in such coercive cycles is operationalized with a number of different variables, including observed parental hostility and aggression towards the child during interactions, parents’ narratives and self-reports of the child as difficult, impossible to manage, and deliberately provocative, and in self-report measures of anger, hostility, and over-reactivity in parenting. Reducing over-reactivity and hostility are common foci of mother-focused parenting programs and of child externalizing treatment programs (Beauchaine et al. 2005; Bjørknes et al. 2012; Brotman et al. 2009; Reid et al. 2007). There is also considerable evidence supporting reductions in hostility/over-reactivity as a mechanism of change (Kennedy et al. 2016; Webster-Stratton et al. 2011).

Although studies of coercive cycles of parent-child interaction often focus on mothers, this pattern of findings extends to fathers as well (Denham et al. 2000; Kelley et al. 2016). For example, Wang and Kenny (2014) found that both mothers’ and fathers’ harsh verbal discipline of their young adolescents predicted escalation of teen’s conduct and depressive symptoms over the next year. Furthermore, the link between coercive thinking (i.e., perception of the child as trying to cause problems) and coercive actions (i.e., harsh parenting) may be stronger for fathers than mothers. In an interesting series of studies, Bugental and colleagues explored parents’ attributions of power to themselves and their children during experimentally manipulated interactions (Bugental et al. 1989, 1990). They found that parents who felt power-disadvantaged relative to their children were more reactive (emotionally, autonomically, cognitively, and behaviorally) and more likely to engage in hostile and verbally aggressive parenting (Bugental et al. 1993, 1990; Bugental and Shennum 1984). Moreover, relationships between feeling powerless and engaging in over-reactive and hostile parenting were especially pronounced for fathers (Bugental et al. 2009; Bugental and Happaney 2000).

Research on domestic and family violence provides additional evidence for the importance of hostility and over-reactivity in the context of DV. Meta-analytic work has shown that men who have been violent in their intimate relationships display higher levels of general anger and hostility on self-report and observational measures than men without a history of intimate partner violence (Norlander and Eckhardt 2005). There is evidence that high levels of anger are present in DV men’s parenting as well. Qualitative studies of children who have been exposed to DV often feature descriptions of fathers’ over-reactivity and hostility in parenting (Katz 2016; Øverlien 2013; Perel and Peled 2008; Zanoni et al. 2014). Quantitative studies also consistently find that rates of hostility/over-reactivity are higher amongst fathers who have perpetrated DV than those who have not (Francis and Wolfe 2008; Fox and Benson 2004; Scott and Lishak 2012; Stover et al. 2013; Stover and Kiselica 2015; Valliant et al. 2004).

Finally, there are now a handful of studies demonstrating that the hostility and over-reactivity of domestically violent fathers is predictive of child difficulties, even after controlling for other variables. Coley et al. (2011) examined the effects of fathers’ harsh/coercive parenting and general antisocial behavior on child development and found that these two factors acted synergistically: Higher concurrent levels of antisocial behaviors and harsh parenting predicted the greatest increase in children’s internalizing behavior through early childhood and middle school. Coley and colleagues also found evidence of a dosage effect, such that while both non-resident and resident fathers’ levels of antisocial behavior predicted higher child internalizing and externalizing difficulties, the impact was significantly stronger for resident fathers. Similarly, Febres et al. (2014) examined the combined impact of interparental aggression, parental hostility, antisocial behavior, borderline personality traits, and substance use on child outcomes with a sample of DV fathers. Both parental antisocial behavior and hostility predicted child outcomes at a bivariate level, though when considered together, paternal antisocial behavior had the strongest relationship to child outcomes.

Consistent with a broader paucity of work with fathers, there is less research available regarding intervention for harsh paternal parenting. However, initial research is promising, as reviews of community-based intervention programs for abusive fathers have provided evidence that fathers’ levels of hostility can be reduced (McConnell et al. 2017; Scott and Lishak 2012; Stover 2015), though the extent to which these improvements translate to better outcomes for children has not yet been established.

In summary, paternal hostility/over-reactivity is supported as an area of difficulty for domestically violent fathers that has negative implications for child development and that has the potential to be changed during intervention. More research is needed to understand the extent to which changes in paternal hostility/over-reactivity predict improved child outcomes.


A second well-supported candidate mechanism of change in the parenting of men who have perpetrated domestic violence is co-parenting. Co-parenting is defined as the extent to which both parents are invested in caregiving, communicate about parenting, value, respect, and support the other’s parenting, and provide children with a sense of consistent rules and solidarity between parents (Feinberg 2003; McHale et al. 2012). Co-parenting is conceptually distinct from DV, though unsurprisingly, co-parenting is often disrupted in the context of domestic violence (Katz and Low 2004; Scott and Lishak 2012). Stover et al. (2013), for example, found that domestically violent substance-using fathers in intact relationships reported co-parenting relationships that were significantly poorer than those of a comparison community sample. Domestic violence has also been shown to be predictive of poorer co-parenting over time. Kan et al. (2012), for example, found that intimate-partner violence during the prenatal period predicted more distressed co-parenting one year after birth.

In a general population context, quality of co-parenting has been established as an important predictor of child outcomes. On the basis of their meta-analysis, Teubert and Pinquart (2010) concluded that co-parenting quality is consistently associated with child internalizing and externalizing symptoms and social functioning, and that co-parenting is more proximally related to child adjustment than other aspects of the inter-parental relationship, including marital satisfaction and quality (Frosch et al. 2000; McHale and Rasmussen 1998). They also clarified that separation does not render co-parenting irrelevant; on the contrary, separated parents’ co-parenting produced larger effect sizes on children’s outcomes than co-parenting in intact families (Teubert and Pinquart 2010). Consistent with these findings, in their meta-analysis of risk factors for child abuse and neglect, Stith et al. (2009) identified high family conflict and low family cohesion as amongst the top three risk-factors for child abuse.

Conceptual work is continuing to elucidate the ways in which co-parenting impacts children. Much of this research is guided by the spillover hypothesis, which postulates that interparental conflict induces negative affect and arousal that has implications for child adjustment by “spilling over” to childrearing practices (e.g., Cox et al. 2001; Krishnakumar and Buehler 2000; Margolin et al. 2001). Studies using this framework have often found that proposed spillover effects are stronger for fathers than for mothers. For example, in a sample of 210 families, Sturge-Apple et al. (2006) found that interparental withdrawal was associated with declines in fathers’, but not mothers’, emotional availability to their children, and that fathers’ emotional unavailability mediated associations between interparental conflict and child mental health symptoms. Similarly, Davies et al. (2009) examined mediational pathways between interparental conflict, adult relationship security, depressive symptoms, and parenting difficulties in a longitudinal study of 233 families of young children. They found, over a 2-year period, that the magnitude of the paths between interparental conflict and subsequent increases in parental psychological control and insensitivity in parenting were significantly stronger for fathers than for mothers.

Studies of DV fathers post-separation suggest that problems in co-parenting are common, although distinguishing between what is most accurately labelled ongoing domestic violence perpetration (i.e, physical, emotional, psychological, financial abuse of women) versus poor co-parenting (i.e., being non-invested in caregiving, failing to communicate, value, respect and support the other parent) is admittedly difficult. In terms of observed/reported behaviors, qualitative studies of the post-separation experiences of mother and child victims of domestic violence often report that during post-separation contact, DV-perpetrating fathers continued to physically and verbally abuse women, denigrate mothers in front of children, and prevent children from contacting or speaking about their mother during father-child contact (Morrison 2015; Thiara and Humphreys 2017; Holt 2015). Hardesty and colleagues’ (Hardesty et al. 2016; Hardesty and Ganong 2006; Hardesty et al. 2008) combined qualitative and quantitative work has partially echoed these findings, although they also identified a subgroup who described more communicative and respective co-parenting relationships. In a recent study investigating fathers’ perspectives on co-parenting, Thompson-Walsh et al. (2018) compared the co-parenting narratives of separated fathers with and without a documented history of DV. Although the majority of fathers in both groups reported distressed co-parenting relationships, fathers who had perpetrated domestic violence as compared to those who had not were strongly disparaging of their partners and likely to describe feelings of powerlessness in parenting (i.e., she has all the power, and I can’t make any decisions) that they blamed on children’s mothers (i.e., it is her fault that I have such little power and influence). Accordingly, these features may be especially important in distinguishing ongoing DV from generally poor co-parenting.

Finally, there is initial evidence that improvements in men’s co-parenting (i.e., level of respect, value, collaboration) may be a key mechanism of change in fathers’ parenting, at least in samples of fathers who have not perpetrated DV. In a recently published randomized controlled trial, Zemp et al. (2016) compared the treatment effects of (a) a couple-focused program (Couples Coping Enhancement Training) to (b) parenting training (Triple P) and (c) a control group on children’s behavioral problems in 150 couples recruited from the general population. Different mechanisms of change were noted for mothers and fathers. For mothers, the two intervention programs yielded positive effects through mechanisms targeted by intervention (parenting for Triple P and relationship quality for CCET). For fathers, the couple-focused program alone reduced dysfunctional parenting. In the program focused on parenting alone, neither changes in parenting nor relationship quality predicted child outcomes.

In summary, there is considerable evidence that co-parenting is a good treatment target for programs aiming to improve outcomes for children of fathers who have perpetrated DV, though greater conceptual clarity is needed to identify the borders between dysfunctional co-parenting and domestic violence. What, if anything, distinguishes a father who fails to value, respect, and support his child(ren)’s mother (and thus scores poorly on measures of co-parenting) from a father who is emotionally abusing his partner by disparaging and blaming her as a mother? Additionally, it is worthwhile to note that the majority of research has used co-parenting as a predictor (for example, of child outcomes or level of father involvement) and very few studies have examined individual or dyadic predictors of co-parenting. Such questions are important in efforts to prevent problems in co-parenting and to help direct intervention efforts.

Father-Child Involvement

A third candidate mechanism of change to be considered is men’s level of fathering involvement. Over the past two decades, involvement of fathers with their children has been a significant focus of public policy and of community-based programming (Lamb 2013; Lamb and Sagi 1983; Yogman et al. 2016). Qualitative studies of men attending batterer intervention programs have found that men value their role as fathers, are motivated to be strong, positive models for their children, and often speak about their potential to break intergenerational cycles of abuse (Fox et al. 2002; Perel and Peled 2008). Although greater involvement is potentially a strong motivator for men, our question for this review is whether increased involvement of fathers who have perpetrated DV with their children is candidate mechanism for change: Does men’s involvement as fathers predict healthy child outcomes over time?

Researchers have generally defined fathering involvement in terms of time with children (accessibility), participation in parenting tasks (responsibility), and quality of father-child engagement (Lamb 1987). With regard to the first two aspects of involvement—accessibility and responsibility—population-based studies have generally concluded that fathers’ parenting involvement is associated with multiple benefits for children, including reduced frequency of behavioral problems in boys and psychological problems in young women, enhanced cognitive development, and better social and emotional regulation (McWayne et al. 2013; Sarkadi et al. 2008). Benefits of fathers’ involvement also extend to non-residential fathers (see meta-analysis by Adamsons and Johnson 2013). Finally, in the most recent meta-analysis in this area, Jeynes (2016) examined 34 studies to determine whether the effect of fathers’ parenting on child outcomes was distinct from that of mothers. He noted that, across studies, a unique positive impact of fathers on child outcomes was almost always supported, with small to medium effect sizes across outcomes.

Alongside these studies of fathers in the general population is a smaller body of work with fathers who are highly antisocial and which draws a different set of conclusions about the impact of fathers’ involvement with their children. Jaffee et al. (2003) completed a seminal study in this area using a longitudinal epidemiological sample of 1116 5-year-old twin pairs (to investigate and control for genetic influence). They found that father presence was associated with better child outcomes only when fathers were not antisocial. When fathers engaged in high levels of antisocial behavior, their children fared better when they were absent. These effects were robust: Associations between antisocial fathers’ involvement and negative child outcomes remained even after controlling for children’s genetic vulnerability and mothers’ level of antisocial behavior. Four subsequent studies have confirmed and broadened the finding that men’s antisocial behavior moderates the relationship between father involvement and child outcomes in population and low socio-economic samples (Auty et al. 2015; Blaze et al. 2008; Coley et al. 2011; DeGarmo 2010; Thornberry et al. 2009).

Concerns about the potential negative effects of fathers’ involvement are echoed by DV advocates and supported in qualitative studies on the impact of DV fathers on their children post-separation. Across a number of studies of mothers and children, most often recruited from shelters, the “need to feel safe” has emerged as a primary theme and ongoing contact with fathers undermines this sense of safety (Buckley et al. 2007). In interviews with DV-exposed children, Holt (2015) found that they were cynical about fathers’ involvement. Children explained that contact arrangements reflected their fathers’ needs and that they experienced little reciprocity in the father-child relationship. They also described that their fathers engaged in behaviors (e.g., limiting phone calls to mothers) that caused children ongoing distress.

Following from this qualitative research, a few studies have examined fathers’ involvement with their children as a potential mediator or moderator of outcomes for children following DV. Stover and colleagues (Stover et al. 2003) examined the impact of father presence versus absence in preschool witnesses of DV in separated and divorced families. Results found that children displayed more externalizing symptoms when fathers were more violent, regardless of the frequency of father-child contact. For internalizing symptoms, however, children displayed better adjustment if they had more frequent (as opposed to less frequent, rare, or no) visitation with their fathers.

Hunter and Graham-Bermann (2013) also examined the relationship between domestic violence, father contact, and child adjustment. Using a convenience sample of 219 children and their abused mothers, they found that variations in children’s contact with their fathers were associated with child outcomes such that the relationship between men’s past year perpetration of domestic violence and child externalizing problems was stronger for children without contact than those with contact, suggesting that father-child contact might have a buffering effect on child behavior problems despite father-perpetrated DV.

Opposite results were reported by Jouriles et al. (2018), who examined level of father-child contact as a potential mediator of the impact of Project Support, a parenting intervention for mothers who have experienced DV. Participants in this study were 66 families (32 randomly assigned to treatment, 34 to comparison) who had accessed shelter, who did not resume living with the father immediately after leaving shelter, and who had a child with significant conduct problems. Jouriles and colleagues (Jouriles et al. 2018) found that for girls, but not boys, levels of father contact were associated increased conduct problems such that higher than average contact was associated with greater child conduct problems.

Summarizing across studies, DV fathers’ involvement clearly matters to child outcomes, but the direction of this association (i.e., greater involvement predicting adjustment or problems) is unclear. Jouriles and colleagues (Jouriles et al. 2018) suggested that in light of these conflicting findings, researchers shift their focus away from simply the amount of father-child contact and towards the quality of interaction between fathers and children. Based on our review, we suggest the same: that fathers’ level of contact and involvement is not well-supported as a candidate treatment mechanism and should not, in and of itself, be a focus of intervention.

Father-Child Closeness/Emotional Responsivity

In addition to level of involvement, fathers vary in the quality of relationship they have with their children. For mothers there exists a a long and extensive history of research on the quality of the mother-child relationships. Unsurprisingly, this literature generally establishes that children whose mothers are warm, positive, accepting of, and responsive to their behaviors and emotions have better emotional regulation, social skills, and fewer psychological problems (Ali et al. 2015; Maliken and Fainsilber Katz 2013; Mikulincer and Shaver 2012). The smaller body of literature on fathers’ emotional responsiveness to children has similarly highlighted the importance of parent-child connections, finding that fathers’ warmth and responsiveness to their children contributes to children’s emotional understanding and well-being (McElwain et al. 2007; Shewark and Blandon 2015).

To date, most of the research on the warmth, connectedness, and emotional responsivity of domestically violent fathers to their children has been qualitative or theoretical. Based on clinical observations of batterer fathers, Bancroft and Silverman (2002) and Scott and Crooks (2004) emphasized that DV perpetrating fathers are often unable to paint a picture of their children as separate individuals, instead describing them as extensions of themselves. Similarly, children who have been exposed to DV often express the view that their fathers are not emotionally attuned to their wishes and needs. For example, children in Holt’s (2015) study expressed the desire for their fathers to “be there” emotionally and psychologically. They explained that their fathers did not know or understand them and were not connected to their emotional lives.

These descriptions of DV fathers align with Fonagy’s (1999) theoretical construction of violent men as having deficits in their capacity for reflective functioning (also referred to as mentalization), which is the basic capacity to understand ourselves and others in terms of intentional mental states, such as feelings, desires, wishes, goals, and attitude. These descriptions of DV fathers are also consistent with research on mothers and fathers who have physically abused their children who, in comparison to non-abusive parents, have been shown more frequently to misattribute children’s emotions and to have deficits in attending and responding appropriately to children’s emotions (Asla et al. 2011; Francis and Wolfe 2008; Shipman and Zeman 1999; Shipman et al. 2007).

When we also consider child outcomes and father violence, however, it becomes less clear that fathers’ emotional closeness to their children should be a core aim of intervention for DV fathers. There have now been a handful of studies with parent offender populations (both mothers and fathers) that suggest that there may be times that parents’ skill in connecting emotionally with their children is detrimental. For instance, in a recent investigation of incarcerated mothers, mothers’ supportive emotional responses to their children’s emotions were not received as positive and helpful by their children. Rather, mothers’ validation of children’s negative emotions led to their increased emotion dysregulation (Zeman et al. 2016). Similarly, in a sample of 74 fathers, some of whom had perpetrated domestic violence, Maliken and Fainsilber Katz (2013) found that domestic violence moderated the relationship between fathers’ emotional responsiveness and child outcomes such that when DV was present, fathers’ awareness of children’s fear was associated with greater externalizing problems in their children.

Another complication is that although qualitative studies and clinical descriptions have often emphasized DV fathers’ lack of emotional responsivity, results from the handful of published quantitative studies are inconsistent (Stewart and Scott 2014). Stover and Spink, for example, found that domestically violent fathers had limited capacity to think about the thoughts and feelings of their children (Stover and Spink 2012) but that these deficits were unrelated to their parenting or their children’s behavior (Stover and Coates 2016).

In summary, although it is tempting to endorse emotional connection and responsiveness as a target for fathering intervention in the context of DV, caution is warranted. As with fathers’ level of involvement, we may need to examine fathers’ emotional connection with their children in interaction with other aspects of parenting, particularly hostility and potentially ongoing abuse of children’s mothers. One possibility is that having a warm and emotionally responsive father who is also hostile, disparaging, and frightening may be more confusing and detrimental to children than a father who is predictably harsh, unkind, and unavailable. However, we lack the body of research needed to make such an assertion. There is still only a handful of studies examining any aspect of father-child emotional connection in the context of DV, and fewer still that use observational methods and combine reports from fathers and children. Additional research in this area is clearly needed.

Parental Mental Health: Depression and Substance Abuse

The change mechanisms reviewed so far—hostility/over-reactivity, co-parenting, involvement, and emotional closeness—are features of father-child relationships. Other potential mechanisms of change may relate to fathers’ mental health, particularly depression and substance abuse. In mothers, there is strong support that both depression and substance abuse predict problems in parenting and are associated with poorer child outcomes (Goodman et al. 2011; Leschied et al. 2005; Osborne and Berger 2009; Salo and Flykt 2013; Stith et al. 2009). Moreover, remissions in mothers’ depression and substance use have been associated with improved child outcomes (Cuijpers et al. 2015; Garber et al. 2011; Neger and Prinz 2015; Pilowsky et al. 2008).

Depression and substance abuse have also been studied as predictors of fathers’ parenting. As is the case with mothers, depression appears to negatively impact fathers’ parenting. Wilson and Durbin (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of 28 studies and concluded that paternal depression decreases positive parenting practices and increases negative parenting practices. They further noted that effect sizes for the impact of paternal depression on parenting were comparable to, or exceeded, those for mothers. For substance use, there are also clear associations between men’s abuse of substances and less responsible and more negative, hostile, and aggressive parenting (Dunn et al. 2002; Eiden et al. 1999; McMahon et al. 2008; Stover and Kiselica 2015; Stover et al. 2012).

Also echoing findings for mothers, studies have supported an association between fathers’ mental health and child outcomes. A recent systematic review of the literature concluded that paternal depression produces weak to moderate negative effects on child development; these findings held even when maternal depression was controlled for (Sweeney and MacBeth 2016). A few studies have also linked fathers’ depression to elevated risk of perpetrating child maltreatment. For example, Lee et al. (2012) found that higher rates of paternal depression were associated with increased odds of future child neglect and for self-reported risk of perpetrating child abuse.

In the literature on child outcomes associated with parental substance use, most studies have failed to disaggregate effects of fathers and mothers; instead, these studies support an association between having at least one parent with a substance use problem and a range of problematic outcomes for children (Chaffin et al. 1996; Neger and Prinz 2015). In one of the few studies that concurrently examined both parents’ substance use as well as residence status, Osborne and Berger (2009) found that associations between parental substance use and child outcomes were generally larger for fathers’ substance abuse than mothers’ and in families in which the substance using father is present, as compared to those in which he is non-resident.

Finally, there is emerging evidence that men’s mental health may be a viable mechanism of change for men’s parenting and subsequent child outcomes. Stover and colleagues (Stover et al. 2012) examined parenting in 87 substance-abusing fathers. Their analyses showed that depression significantly mediated the relationship between fathers’ substance abuse severity and hostile, aggressive parenting practices, thereby suggesting that targeting fathers’ depressive symptoms may aid in the reduction of substance abuse and the improvement of the father-child relationship. Similar questions were explored by Fals-Stewart et al. (2009) in an intervention study examining the effect of behavioral couples therapy with and without parenting skills training on parenting and child protection outcomes in a sample of men voluntarily entering outpatient treatment for an alcohol use disorder. All treatments were associated with substantial reductions in substance use. Compared to other conditions, however, combined treatment led to the greatest reductions in over-reactive and lax parenting and to shorter lengths of child protection involvement.

Given documented associations between fathers’ mental health, parenting, and child outcomes, we next addressed the question of specificity—whether the incidence and/or impact of depression and substance use differed for DV and non-DV fathers. Multiple studies have linked both depression and substance use to an increased likelihood of perpetrating domestic violence (Choenni et al. 2017; Foran and O'Leary 2008; Lipsky et al. 2005; Oram et al. 2013; Stith et al. 2004; Trevillion et al. 2015). Moreover, for DV-perpetrating fathers specifically, studies have found that depression and substance abuse occur more frequently in fathers with, than in fathers without, a history of domestic violence (Chaffin et al. 1996; Coohey 2000; Francis and Wolfe 2008).

We acknowledge that within the domestic violence field, research on men’s mental health has a complicated history as researchers and practice leaders struggle to reconcile societal (e.g., gender inequity) and individual (e.g., attitudes supporting violence, mental health) level predictors of domestic violence. Nevertheless, within a multi-determinant model, mental health appears to play a role, along with other factors, on men’s parenting and on outcomes for children. These findings are supportive enough to warrant more research. In particular, studies are needed that focus on DV fathers and examine whether change in depression and substance abuse predicts safer and healthier outcomes for children.


Finally, we queried whether sexism and masculinity might be relevant for understanding change in the parenting of fathers who have perpetrated DV. Sexism and masculinity have long been investigated as risk factors for the perpetration of intimate partner violence (Levant and Richmond 2008; Moore and Stuart 2005; Peralta and Tuttle 2013; Stith et al. 2004; World Health Organization 2012). Results of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), conducted across eight low- and middle-income countries, supported an association between inequitable gender attitudes and self-reported IPV perpetration (Fleming et al. 2015). Similarly, in a study of over 70,000 respondents in 51 countries, Herrero et al. (2017) found that sexism and attitudes supporting violence were both positively related to respondents’ ratings of the acceptability of domestic violence.

In a review of the literature on masculinity as potential predictor of partner violence, Moore and Stuart (2005) helpfully divided studies by their approach to understanding sexism and masculinity. They noted that the strongest support was found for a relationship between domestic violence perpetration and masculine gender role stress, defined as the degree of conflict and stress men experience when gender role norms are challenged. Studies adopting a trait approach (i.e., self-descriptions that adhere or fail to adhere to traditional gender stereotypic traits) and more general sexist beliefs (e.g., “leadership positions should largely be held by men”) had findings that were more inconsistent.

Subsequent theoretical and empirical work has continued to find reasonably strong support for a relationship between masculinity, especially gender role strain, and men’s violence in intimate relationships (Peralta and Tuttle 2013). Using a sample of men with a history of IPV perpetration, Moore and colleagues (Moore et al. 2008) found that gender role stress was associated with all forms of IPV perpetration (i.e., psychological, sexual, physical). Similarly, Reidy and colleagues (Reidy et al. 2014) identified masculine discrepancy stress (stress resulting from the failure to adhere to the traditional notion of masculinity imposed by societal norms) as a risk factor for men’s perpetration of IPV above and beyond other masculinity measures. Finally, in a study of almost 500 male drinkers, Lisco and colleagues found that men’s adherence to hegemonic masculine norms was indirectly and positively associated with the perpetration of physical aggression toward female intimate partners via masculine gender role stress (Lisco et al. 2015).

Fewer studies have explored the implications of masculinity for parenting, and even fewer for understanding it as a potential mechanism of change in fathers who have perpetrated DV. In general-population studies on parenting, masculinity has mostly been explored from a theoretical perspective or as a predictor of fathers’ involvement. For example, a series of studies explored the implications of changing norms of fatherhood on conceptualizations of masculinity and have suggested that commitment to a progressive notion of men’s role as parents is not necessarily perceived as a threat to one’s masculinity (Datchi 2017; Plantin et al. 2003; Ramaswamy 2010). Other researchers are tracking how change in the hegemonic structure of masculinity is moving to include the idea of the involved care-taking father (Johansson and Klinth 2008).

Finally, there has been some research on the extent to which fathering programs might promote change in notions of masculinity. For example, interviews with three groups of fathers in the Yeshiva University Fatherhood Project (gay fathers, Haitian American fathers, and fathers part of the evangelical Christian organization Promise Keepers) revealed that traditional fathering expectations imposed a gender role strain on all fathers and that, in response, fathers reconstructed the notions of fatherhood and masculinity by loosening the strict gender rules associated with parenting (Silverstein et al. 2002). Similarly, Dolan (2014) used a qualitative approach with white, working-class British fathers to explore the interaction between masculine identity and the way in which fathers’ perception of fatherhood changed as a consequence of attending a fathers-only parenting program. Results showed that after attending the program, fathers assimilated some contemporary aspects of fatherhood (typically perceived by working-class fathers as effeminate parenting practices) into their working-class masculinity, though the new conceptualization did not entirely displace the old.

Research on masculinity has not yet extended into the study of its intersection with child maltreatment or child outcomes. We were able to find only one study that examined the association between hypermasculinity and child maltreatment. Guerrero (2009) reported that hypermasculinity significantly predicted fathers’ perpetration of sexual coercion, physical violence, and verbal aggression in their intimate relationships, but was not related to risk for perpetrating child maltreatment. As the author noted, further study is needed on these relationships. Is there a direct association between men’s gender role stress and outcomes for children? Does gender role stress contribute to men’s hostility/over-reactivity to their children? Might we expect co-parenting to be more distressed in couples where men endorse greater adherence to hegemonic masculinity? Given the association between intimate partner violence and gender role strain, and the central role that fatherhood plays in men’s conceptualization of their masculinity, it seems that this is an area deserving of additional attention in research.


We have explored several potential paths from child exposure to domestic violence to a father-child relationship that is free from abuse and predictive of healthy child development. Our aim was to examine changes in men’s parenting that were most strongly supported as targets for change. Drawing on studies of parenting, fatherhood, DV, and child maltreatment, we identified a number of variables that hold promise as potential mechanisms of change.

In the realm of the father-child relationship, we identified hostility, co-parenting, and the quality of father-child interaction as promising candidates for intervention and for future research. Fathers’ hostility/over-reactivity to their children has been shown to differentiate DV from non-DV fathers, to predict child behavior problems, and to be a promising candidate as a mediator for change. Similarly, there is converging evidence from across literatures of the importance of targeting men’s disrespectful and non-collaborative co-parenting.

Results are more complex when issues of fathers’ involvement and emotional closeness are considered. We clarified that DV fathers’ involvement with their children, in and of itself, is not well supported as a potential mechanism of change. Greater involvement of DV fathers has, in fact, been shown to relate to poorer child outcomes when fathers continue to engage in antisocial and/or domestically violent behaviors. Researchers have called for a movement away from simple examinations of fathers’ level of involvement (i.e., accessibility and responsibility) to a closer consideration of the quality of men’s engagement with their children and families. However, there are still very few qualitative or quantitative studies exploring emotional closeness between fathers who have perpetrated DV and considerably more work is needed in this area.

Considering fathers’ characteristics, we examined depression, substance use, and hegemonic masculinity as potential change mediators. There is considerable evidence from studies on the general population that men’s depression impacts fathers’ parenting and predicts more negative outcomes for children. These results add to a growing understanding that men’s depression can co-occur with DV and that, when it does, risk to victims is likely to be exacerbated. Substance use is also fairly well supported as compounding risk factor for poor parenting and compromised child outcomes. Finally, we examined sexism and masculinity and reviewed their relationship to DV perpetration. We noted that very few studies have explored relationships between fathers’ masculinity, sexism, and child outcomes, and we highlighted gender role strain as a promising area for future research on fathering in men who have exposed their children to domestic violence.

There were also many questions that we did not ask in this review. As discussed earlier, questions of what needs to change in the parenting of fathers who have perpetrated domestic violence may need to take a backseat to questions of when such interventions are offered and how they are integrated with other services aiming to end women abuse, ensure child safety from abuse, and make determinations about parent custody and access. Work in this area is complex and complicated, existing as it does at the intersection of the three “planets” of child protective seervices, domestic violence services (women abuse and batterer intervention services), and family law and child contact-related services (courts, supervised access centers) (Hester 2011). There are important questions and issues that still need to be pursued in each of these areas. Within child protection, for example, more work is needed to support frontline workers in recognizing and responding appropriately to mothers who have been victims of domestic violence (and who are still too often held responsible for failing to be protective) and to fathers who have perpetrated this abuse (who are still too often invisible to the system). Within the domestic violence field, we need to expand the range and diversity of interventions offered to men who have perpetrated violence and to increase support for mothers and children impacted by abuse.

Other questions are central to “staying in orbit” while working at the intersection of these fields. For example, to what extent are collaborative relationships between professionals working with women, children, and men essential to achieving positive outcomes? Who should lead an intervention service for domestically violent fathers? Child protection? Child and family support services? DV services? How should such an intervention best communicate or be linked with family law? Although in our own work, and our previous writings, we have outlined principles that we see as essential, we do not yet have a set of guidelines that are agreed upon across sectors and that have been empirically scrutinized.

Although such when and how questions are important, it is nevertheless worthwhile to also delve into the question of what needs to change. Such research is especially relevant to determining whether DV fathers have made meaningful change in their ability to ensure child safety and support healthy child development; questions which are (appropriately) being asked more often in the family law arena. Herein, we have tried to highlight targets for change.

Additionally, we wish to note that there were other variables that arose in our review that we considered but eventually abandoned. One example was social support. Social support is frequently investigated for its association to mothers’ risk for abuse and is often targeted as an outcome in intervention. Research with non-resident and non-marital fathers has indicated that increased social support predicted increased involvement with their children (Castillo and Fenzl-Crossman 2010; Castillo and Sarver 2012) and research with divorced fathers supported a buffering effect of social support, such that the effect of ongoing conflict with children’s mothers on reducing fathers’ prosocial parenting was lower in the context of high father social support (DeGarmo et al. 2008). However, we were unable to find convincing evidence that changing social support necessarily led to improved outcomes for children. We also were unable to find studies examining the effect of men’s social support in the context of DV.

Similarly, we started but stopped an investigation into parenting stress as a promising mechanism of change, though again there is reason to suggest further research on this topic is warranted. Other variables that might be the foci of future consideration are men’s approval of violence, including corporal punishment, paternal monitoring (especially of adolescents), fathers’ parenting knowledge (e.g., understanding of child development), coping skills, problem-solving ability, attachment style, and accountability for past abuse.

Finally, we note that the focus of this review was on variables that could potentially be changed. Although these variables tend to be of greatest concern for intervention, for the field as a whole, it is also important to keep track of variables likely to moderate the impact of intervention. These include past severity and frequency of violence, level of men’s antisocial behavior, fathers’ employment, child age and gender, and other key demographic and historical differences. Moderators such as these might help to clarify the contexts in which intervention is least likely to promote change as well as the conditions under which interventions to change men’s parenting might be most successful.

In conclusion, in order to ensure and sustain safe outcomes for women and children in circumstances of domestic violence, it is necessary to recognize and respond to risk posed by fathers who have perpetrated this violence. It is our hope that this exploration of potential targets for change in the parenting of fathers who have perpetrated violence in their families will help to further advance research and practice in this area.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katreena L. Scott
    • 1
    Email author
  • Catherine Thompson-Walsh
    • 1
  • Asma Nsiri
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, Ontario Institute for Studies in EducationUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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